Mike Kueber's Blog

October 31, 2012

How important are small businesses to the creation of jobs?

Filed under: Business,Economics,Education — Mike Kueber @ 2:06 pm
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Politicians, especially those of the Republican stripe, like to claim that most new jobs are created by small businesses.  And according to the Small Business Administration (SBA), that claim is accurate.  The SBA reports that 65% of America’s new jobs created in the past 17 years were created by small businesses (those with fewer than 500 employees).   

I have no quarrel with the factual claim that small businesses create most new jobs, but I vigorously disagree with the significance of that fact.  My thinking is that (1) the vitality of an economy – whether local, state, or national – depends on its ability to export products, and (2) large businesses, not small businesses, produce the products that an economy exports.  This thinking is reflected in the old saying, “As GM goes, so goes the nation.” 

While visiting Steubenville, Ohio that past week, I saw what happens to a local economy when it loses its ability to export products.  For decades, Steubenville exported steel and when that industry died, so did Steubenville.  According to the US census, Steubenville lost more population than any other metropolitan area in America between 1980 and 2000.  In a sense, all of the small businesses in Steubenville existed to support the big businesses that produced the exportable products. 

When the big businesses die, the same thing will inevitably happen to the small businesses, not matter how efficient they are.

When I was living in North Dakota in the ‘80s, I remember telling people that the only reason that North Dakota existed as an economy was to produce agricultural products.  If the land wasn’t productive, the entire economy would dry up and blow away.  Today, that is not entirely accurate because, not only has North Dakota hit the jackpot with oil, but its educated workforce has attracted some technology companies that export products.

This concept of producing exportable products has wide application to the way that I think about a plethora of issues, such as:

  1. The HEB grocery chain is not nearly as significant to San Antonio’s economy as it appears to be.  If HEB didn’t exist, some other grocer would take its place in selling groceries.  HEB merely cuts up the pie of available money in San Antonio’s economy; it doesn’t grow the pie. 
  2. By contrast, military installations grow San Antonio’s economic pie, which can then feed hundreds of small businesses that live directly off the military or indirectly off its employees.
  3. Corporations that create exportable products are critical to a thriving economy, and that is why Toyota (or Rackspace, Valero, et al.) is so important to San Antonio.  .
  4. Good colleges are important, not only by attracting students from other economies, but also by getting your young people to stay in San Antonio instead of taking their money somewhere else.  Reducing imports is just as effective as increasing exports.  
  5. Although small businesses do not generally create exportable products (or bring in money from other economies), they are important in the sense that if they are run poorly, their inflated costs are passed on to their customers.  If their customer is a big business, that business will be less able to produce competitive, exportable products, and if their customer is an individual consumer, that consumer will have a diminished quality of life.   

When San Antonio gives a tax incentive for a business to locate here, I hope the incentives go to businesses that enlarge the pie (i.e., a manufacturer with 50 employees), not those that merely cut up the pie (a big restaurant with 200 employers).  One might argue that attracting a sports team falls in the category of merely cutting up the pie of San Antonio’s entertainment dollars.  But others would counter that a sports team, like a symphony, affects a city’s quality of life and, thereby, its ability to attract big companies that will produce exportable products. 

Bottom line – human capital is critical to San Antonio’s long-term success, and that means having smart, hard-working people.  Sometimes that means attracting such people to move here, but ideally we should be growing our own.  And let’s hope San Antonio and America don’t follow GM’s path.

October 28, 2012

Homesickness

Filed under: Relationships — Mike Kueber @ 11:02 pm
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Recently, while visiting with my son Jimmy at Franciscan University in Ohio, I asked him about the status of his San Antonio friends, especially his friend who was prevented from being his roommate because of an application glitch – i.e., his friend submitted his dormitory application on time while Jimmy didn’t.  Jimmy shocked me when he said his friend had returned to San Antonio after only a few days on campus, apparently because of homesickness.  And Jimmy impressed me when he declared in a very nonjudgmental way that some people just aren’t ready to leave home.

Jimmy’s attitude impressed me, not only because he was nonjudgmental, but also because I’m a person with a lifelong problem with homesickness that I briefly touched on with a post to my blog when Jimmy drove off to Ohio a couple of months ago.  In that post, I mentioned how this problem affected my decision to go to UND for college instead of ND, but it also contributed to me leaving Army ROTC in 1974 and then leaving Texas to return to North Dakota in 1981.

There is a lot of interesting on-line information about homesickness.  Much of it focuses on the transition from high school to college, but there is also recognition that it is not limited to the young (e.g., me).  And there are suggestions for how to better cope with it – such as, it is helpful and accurate to remind yourself that, as with most emotions, “This, too, shall pass,” if you give it time.   

On-line sources will also advise that homesickness has nothing to do with home, but rather has to do with separation from your environment or people you feel attached to.  That explains why I had to work hard to avoid tearing up as I was saying good-by to Jimmy earlier today. 

Homesickness may not be as bad when you are leaving a person to go home, or when a person leaves your home, but it still hurts like hell.

LampPost Bed & Breakfast and dancing

Filed under: Culture,Entertainment,Relationships,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 9:01 pm
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While visiting my son in Steubenville, OH, I stayed at the LampPost Bed & Breakfast.  Although bed & breakfast places have become ubiquitous during the last 20 or 30 years, this was my first experience with the concept.  Why would I stay in a person’s home when I could save money and stay in an economical motel?

As with many things in my life, economics is a controlling factor, so it is not surprising that is what led me to LampPost.  My son had warned me that finding a motel room in Steubenville was difficult, so shortly before arriving at his campus, I stopped in a convenient motel and was surprised to learn it charged $150 a night.  That was too pricey, I said, and the proprietor told me that there were only two other motels in town, and they were a bit cheaper, but not nearly as nice.

With that bittersweet news (rooms were available, but more expensive than I wanted to pay), I proceeded to Jimmy’s rugby practice.  Then, while visiting with one of Jimmy’s injured teammates, I mentioned the high price of the motel, and he said his mom, when visiting for Parent’s Weekend, had stayed at a nice bed & breakfast for only $50 a night.  Even better, he still had its phone number.  A few minutes later, I was all set at $50.

The LampPost proprietors are quite a couple.  Joe and Peggy are both 74-years old, and have been married for six years (after meeting on-line), with both of their previous spouses being victims to cancer.  It’s hard to believe that Joe is 74, unless you visualize Kirk Douglas at that age, while Peggy seems the traditional housewife.  The Romney signs in their front yard portended their staunch conservatism, and that was confirmed by the LampPost prohibition of alcohol.  With the presidential election only a bit more than a week away, that was often the subject of our conversations, and they are worried to death that President Obama will be re-elected and that America will go over the fiscal cliff to resemble either Greece or General Motors. 

But America’s decline is not stopping them from enjoying their golden years.  Joe is a natural dancer, and he has taught Peggy to be a competent partner.  Joe joked about hopeless dancers who lacked rhythm so completely that they couldn’t even clap to a song’s beat, let alone dance to it, and he laughed when I told him that that was me.  Although this sort of realization might be discouraging to some, it has actually comforted me because now I accept my dismal dancing, not as a lack of trying, but as a non-gift, akin to my non-creativity.  I have been blessed with some gifts, but rhythm and creativity are not among them.  As the Serenity Prayer suggests, accept the things you cannot change. 

Joe and Peggy attend church twice a week – his Saturday Mass and her Sunday Protestant service.  Peggy suggested to me that the Saturday Mass was not as satisfying to them because it was so structured with rote communication and a short sermon, while the Sunday service was full of preaching and post-service fellowship. 

As I was listening to Peggy, her description of Mass/services seemed to be analogous to the difference between a motel and a bed & breakfast.  At a motel, everything is structured and you are unlikely to make a human connection.  By contrast, at a bed & breakfast, you will not only make a human connection, but you will also learn an immense amount of information about the community.

Bed & breakfast – what a great concept!

Road trip – Ohio and Franciscan University

Filed under: Culture,Education,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 2:41 am
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Although I just returned from an exhausting one-week stay in NYC and an even more exhausting rotator-cuff surgery, two circumstances conspired to get me on the road again before I had expected:

  1. My son Jimmy, who is attending Franciscan University (“academically excellent, passionately Catholic”) in Steubenville, Ohio, was coming to the end of his first season of rugby.  Like the “blind man in the bleachers,” I had never seen him play, so why not do it now?
  2. My man Mitt Romney was in a really tight presidential race, and it sounded like the voters of Ohio would provide the decisive electors, so why not spend a few days volunteering for Romney in Ohio.

I hemmed and hawed about taking the trip for a couple of day, but when I called the Romney folks in Columbus on Tuesday and they offered to provide me a bed, I decided the stars were aligned. 

I hit the road on Thursday morning (on the radio – Beck, Rush, Hannity, Levin, Miller), drove through the night, and arrived in Columbus Friday afternoon.  But instead of stopping by the Columbus campaign office, I decided I would rather watch Jimmy’s 4-6pm rugby practice, so I kept driving to Steubenville and arrived just in time to watch some practice. 

After practice, Jimmy’s team met for a prayer session and then had their pre-game supper.  Jimmy and I finally got together around 9pm and spend a couple of hours driving around Steubenville, which has to be hillier than San Fran (though I’ve never been there). 

While driving around, Jimmy and I talked about life and his life.  He seems to be supremely happy at Franciscan as he is surrounded by kindred spirits – i.e., passionately Catholic.  And these kids are palpably different.  As I wandered around the campus asking for directions to the rugby field, I was struck by how openly “happy, cheerful, and friendly” the kids were.  And, like Asian immigrants, these kids did not have the cockiness, brashness, or outsized ego that you commonly notice in many college kids. 

The fact that Jimmy is flourishing with these kindred spirits raises the question of how important diversity is.  The liberal advocates of affirmative action say it is critical for America’s future leaders to be exposed to people of all types – rich & poor, liberal & conservative, black, white, and brown, gay & straight, etc.  Yet, most people don’t dispute that all-black, all-girl, or all-religious schools have a record of turning out outstanding graduates.  

When I asked Jimmy about whether he was concerned about studying in a cocoon of religiosity or not being exposed to dysfunctional people, he responded that Franciscan Univ. was active in working with the hundreds of struggling people in Steubenville, many of them literally right across University Boulevard.   

In addition to being “passionately Catholic,” Franciscan University is also “academically excellent,” and Jimmy seems to have bought into that, too.  I remember making that same transition my freshman year in college – going from a high-school student who studied a course simply because it was on my schedule to someone who studied because he wanted to learn that subject. 

Jimmy and I talked briefly about something called “the gentleman’s C,” which used to predominate private schools until admission to professional schools became so competitive.  Although I suspect that the gentleman’s C still exists in religious schools like Franciscan, Jimmy is still too new here to know.   Personally, I don’t know how to reconcile the practical need for exemplary grades against the ideal of learning for the sake of learning, and maybe these idealistic kids can school me on that.  

My initial impression of Franciscan reminds me of the creepy brother-in-law in Field of Dreams who initially wanted to sell the ballfield, but eventually was converted to believe the field was magical, and that is when he told Kevin Costner to hold onto the field at all costs.  I’ve come to believe that Franciscan is the spiritually right place for Jimmy.

Because I’ve enjoyed this time with Jimmy so much, I extended my Steubenville stay to a second night and then a third night and won’t get to Columbus until Monday morning.  Then I hope to be able to blog about the groundswell of support for Romney. 

Keeping my fingers crossed.

October 23, 2012

The undecided voter

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:40 pm
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As the presidential campaign goes into its final two weeks, Romney appears to have caught Obama in the nationwide popular vote and is closing the gap in the swing states – all riding on the momentum he earned in the first debate.  If I were a betting man, I would say that Romney is now the frontrunner (and he debated like one last night), yet the on-line betting cite Intrade.com lists Obama as having a 59% chance of prevailing, and that suggests to me that my optimism is unjustified. 

Because the election is so close, its outcome will turn on each candidate’s GOTV efforts (Get out the Vote) and his ability to persuade undecided voters.  Although the GOTV efforts obviously apply to much larger numbers of voters, the pundits in the media seem obsessed with the few remaining undecided voters.  In fact, they wonder how a voter can be undecided so late in the game.

I haven’t bothered to give the undecided voter much thought, but last week my brother Kelly posted something on my Facebook page about what he thought of the campaigns:     

  • I think people vote because of their dislike for one candidate and not because of whether they like the person they are voting for. Therefore if you do not listen or watch these guys you do not get angry towards any of them. Kind of like watching a sporting event, if you watch the whole game and your team loses a close one it can be upsetting but if you just catch the score after the game it is not as big of deal! My point is I do not listen to or watch the political talk shows any more so it does not bother me as much who wins the elections! But that is just me ,I know some people love that stuff!

Essentially, Kelly is saying that some voters don’t pay a lot of attention and don’t care who wins.  Back in my younger days, it was more politically correct to take assume that position; today, not so much. 

I can see how campaigning to win Kelly’s vote would be like herding cats.  That’s why Karl Rove gets paid the big bucks.

The final Romney-Obama debate

Filed under: People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:45 am
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The final Romney-Obama debate centered on foreign policy.  Personally, I don’t think foreign policy deserves an entire debate because I subscribe to Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s statement in 1947 that, “Politics ends at the water’s edge.”  But since there was a debate, it was important to show up, and my man Mitt did.  Just as importantly, Mitt needed to show Americans that he was not a war-monger, and he clearly did that. 

Key points about the debate:

  • Libya.  Romney decided not to belabor the Libya debacle unless the moderator, Bob Schieffer, brought it up.  Inexplicably, Schieffer gave Obama a pass.
  • The apology tour.  Romney provided a vigorous defense of his charge that Obama conducted an apology tour after being elected in 2008 by quoting Obama as saying America tended to be dismissive and derisive and liked to dictate.  Romney countered that America didn’t dictate to other countries; it freed them.
  • Mean-spirited.  Obama’s tone was that of any angry, cynical man, while Romney’s was that of a calm, clear-thinking executive.  Romney’s excellent counter to Obama was to say, “Attacking me is not an agenda.”
  • Default expression.  Britt Hume noted that each man spent a lot of time on split-screen looking at his opponent and that Obama’s default expression was anger and dismissive while Romney’s was considerate and thoughtful.  I agree with Hume’s observation.  Advantage Romney.
  • Obama’s needle.  Obama ended just about every question by throwing out an incendiary needle that distorted Romney’s position, but Romney had the discipline to ignore the needle and instead provide a thoughtful, big-picture response.
  • Horses and bayonets.  Obama asserted that Romney didn’t understand the modern military and shouldn’t focus on the number of ships in the Navy.  Perhaps, Obama suggested, Romney wasn’t aware that we don’t use horses and bayonets anymore.  Maybe someone needs to tell Obama that the most Marines (except its corpsemen) still use bayonets.  

So, even though politics should end at the water’s edge, this debate did confirm that Romney has a thorough working knowledge of foreign policy and that he will not lead America into any war of choice.  I think he closed the deal tonight.

October 22, 2012

SSI

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 9:29 pm
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A few days ago, I blogged about America’s safety net by listing the 13 most significant federal programs dealing with poverty.  Number 6 on the list is Supplemental Security Income (or SSI), with a cost of $43.7 billion a year and 8.1 million beneficiaries.  Yesterday, the New York Times contained an interesting article that examined SSI, not from a bean-counter perspective, but rather from a personal perspective. 

The article, titled “The Disability Trap” by Julie Turkewitz and Juliet Linderman, describes the life of a supposedly typical SSI beneficiary and complains about perverse incentives that prevent the beneficiary from attempting to wean himself from government dependency:

  • The very program that is supposed to be their safety net is actually the source of the problem, experts say. S.S.I. traps many disabled people by limiting their income to levels just above the poverty line, and taking away their cash benefits if they achieve any level of security….  [Brad Crelia] now receives a monthly check for $506 through the S.S.I. program, and he is allowed to earn $85 more. (He also receives some assistance toward his rent and food expenses.) Once he surpasses the $85, his benefit check will be reduced by $1 for every $2 he earns. And if his income reaches $1,097 a month, he will no longer be eligible for any cash S.S.I. benefits at all. So he must be poor or he must give up all government support. Mr. Crelia is never permitted to have more than $2,000 in the bank, a restriction that places the trappings of a middle-class life — a car, a modest home, a family — far out of reach. “I’ve been kept financially sort of in this cage,” Mr. Crelia said. “Just basic things that people rely upon, having a normal life, aren’t things that are really accessible. And won’t be.”

Since when is a welfare beneficiary entitled to “the trappings of a middle-class life”?  Nothing frustrates taxpayers more than seeing a food-stamp recipient buying coke and steak with food stamps, buying beer and cigarette with cash, and carting them out to their 4×4 pickup.  America may eventually develop into a welfare state where the vast majority of people are entitled to a panoply of government handouts, but for now the American objective is individual independence.

Furthermore, the NY Times article mischaracterizes SSI as a program “created in 1974 to help blind, aged and disabled people meet basic needs for food, clothing and shelter.”  As noted in the quote above, the beneficiary Crelia receives separate governmental assistance for food and shelter.  And it fails to note that Medicaid would take care of his medical needs. 

The 1974 inception date is not a misprint.  Although SSI seems like an LBJ – Great Society type of program, it was actually the brainchild of the original RINO Richard Nixon.  As described in Wikipedia, there is a striking contrast between Nixon’s SSI and Paul Ryan’s proposal to cure Medicaid with block grants to the states:

  • The legislation creating the program was a result of President Nixon’s effort to reform the nation’s welfare programs. At that time, each state had similar programs under the Aid to the Blind, Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled, and Aid to the Elderly. The Nixon Administration thought these programs should be federalized and run by the Social Security Administration. Thus, SSI was created to eliminate the differences between the states including different disability standards and income and resources requirements, which many perceived as irrational or unfair. President Richard Nixon signed the Social Security Amendments of 1972 on October 30, 1972 which created the SSI Program. The SSI program officially began operations in January 1974 by federalizing states’ programs, designating the Social Security Administration (SSA) to administer the SSI program. SSA was selected because it had been administering a nationwide disability program under the Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) program since 1956 under the Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) programs associated with FICA payroll taxes.

Funny how few really new innovations there are.  If you are old enough, you have probably already experienced the failure of what the management gurus are touting as their latest panacea. 

 

 

Bob Kerrey

Filed under: People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 1:27 pm
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Nebraska senatorial candidate Bob Kerrey was a guest on Don Imus’s talk show this morning.  Although Kerrey is a famous liberal and is trailing Deb Fischer by 5% in their contest, Imus recommended whole-heartedly that Nebraskans vote for Kerrey because he would add a unique voice to the U.S. Senate.  After listening to Kerrey for a few minutes, I found myself agreeing with Imus because of Kerrey’s two major points:

  1. The debt is America’s biggest substantive challenge, and a bipartisan approach like Simpson-Bowles is our proper course of action.
  2. Polarization in Washington is America’s biggest structural challenge, and Kerry wants to work with the Senate’s original maverick John McCain to attack polarization.  For example, party caucuses, which used to meet annually, but now meet weekly, should be returned to their previous obscurity.  Great idea.

During the interview, Imus repeatedly called on to Nebraskans to vote for Kerrey without even mentioning his opponent.  But when Imus returned from a commercial, to his credit, he provided Deb Fischer’s name and noted that she was probably a fine candidate, but Kerrey deserved to win because he was extraordinary. 

I understand Imus’s thinking, but I can’t help thinking that a vote for Kerrey is a vote for Harry Reid to continue in charge of the U.S. Senate.

October 21, 2012

Sunday Book Review #87 – The Presidents Club

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 5:05 pm
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The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy is a history book that examines the role that ex-Presidents have played in American politics since the end of World War II.  I haven’t read a history book in a long time, and based on this experience, I will be reading more history in the future.  Although I lived through most of this time period, it’s amazing how much of what happened I had forgotten or never knew.

The authors point out that ex-Presidents have no formal role, power, or responsibilities, so that their influence is limited to their ability to indirectly influence the current president.  Richard Nixon has been by far the most influential ex-president.  Although the authors’ hatred for Nixon is palpable, they document his outsize relationships, especially with Reagan, but also with Bush-41 and more surprisingly with Bill Clinton.

Perhaps the most informative section of the book for me was its review of Vietnam.  It revealed how Kennedy had made only modest commitments to Vietnam before his death, but that LBJ felt he had to defend those commitments against the invading North Vietnamese or else he would be savaged not only by Kennedy lovers, but also by Nixon/Eisenhower on the right.  Talk about being between a rock and a hard place.  Because of the debacle in Vietnam, Johnson was unable to complete his Great Society agenda consisting of a war on America’s 20% poverty, elderly healthcare, and civil rights. 

The next most informative section dealt with the rise of Ronald Reagan.  Because I’m someone who has lowered his estimation of Reagan over the years, The Presidents Club reminded me why I was so attracted to him in the first place – i.e., he was a true believer in the conservative cause of anti-communism and small government.  Because he was a true believer, he got a reputation as someone who was a loner or only out for himself.  Actually, he was in politics not for his ego, but to accomplish his conservative ends.  Life is so much simpler that way.

Probably the greatest insight from The Presidents Club is that, although politics tends to separate these highly partisan men, their status as president is even stronger in uniting them.  As President Clinton noted, “It’s impossible to be in this job without feeling a special bond with the people who have gone before.”  There is an old saying that you don’t second-guess another person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.  Ex-presidents are keenly aware of this, and their awareness makes them loathe to criticize their successor.  They more than anyone else know that a president is making decisions based on facts and information that the public is not aware of.  An example of this would be Obama’s idealistic criticisms of Bush-43 policies followed by Obama actually keeping in place most of those policies.  

The Presidents Club trivia:

  • Shortly after Nixon was sworn in in 1972, the ex-presidents club was empty because Harry Truman and LBJ died within a month of each other.  By contrast, when Clinton was sworn in in 1992, there were for the first time in history five ex-presidents – Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush-41 – and four of them had been turned out.
  • Shortly after Nixon’s death, Clinton told Larry King, “Just today I had a problem and I said to the person working with me, ‘I wish I could pick up the phone and call Richard Nixon and ask him what he thinks we ought to do about this.’”
  • Late in Clinton’s second term, he was hosting the nation’s governors, including two Bushes, at the White House.  When some of Clinton’s aides criticized W. for being a bit sour toward Clinton, Clinton defended him, “Look, the guy’s just being honest.  What’s he supposed to do, like me?  I defeated his father, he loves his father.  It doesn’t bother me, this is a contact sport.”
  • Bush-43 campaigned to bring honor and integrity back to the White House and suggested that the Clinton/Lewinsky affair cast a shadow that America wanted to leave behind.  Yet, shortly after Bush-43 was declared the winner in 2000, he visited the White House and asked Clinton if he minded the mention of “the shadow” during the campaign.  Clinton reminded him that Bush-41’s only request on leaving office was to save his beloved Points of Light Initiative, which Clinton did.  Clinton asked Bush-43 to save Clinton’s beloved AmeriCorps program, which Bush-43 did.

What I most enjoyed about The Presidents Club was reading how these men became better persons after leaving office.  Winning at all costs was no longer their dominant motivation.  Their status as an ex-president allowed them to act decently and with integrity.  While they were concerned with their legacies, their decency and integrity invariably enhanced those legacies.  Mostly, they cared about America and the institution of the presidency.

October 20, 2012

Saturday Night at the Movies #51 – Fight Club, P.S. I Love You, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Husbands & Wives, Chinatown, Two Jakes, and Seven Days in Utopia.

Seven Days in Utopia is a widely panned 2011 movie about a kid (Lucas Black) from Waco floundering in his attempt to make the professional golf tour.  Setbacks are just about to take him down when a small car wreck forces him to stop in Utopia, TX for seven days of car repairs.  As luck would have it, the small town (population 373) has a former golf pro (Robert Duvall) who decides to teach the kid everything he learned from his life on the tour.  The movie, which is based on a 2006 book – Golf’s Sacred Journey – by a sports psychologist, reminds me a lot of George Strait’s Pure Country movie, with a good old boy being corrupted by big-city values until he comes home to small-town Texas values.  Filming was actually in Utopia, and I remember some of the locations from a stop in Utopia one year while doing the Leakey Death Ride.  Rotten Tomato critics give the film a rating of only 12 (the movie is slightly religious), while the audience sees it as a satisfactory 71%.  I like it even better and give it three and a half stars out of four. 

Fight Club, described by its director as a coming-of-age movie like The Graduate, reminds me of Mulholland Drive, a movie that I started but did not finish a week ago.  Because I was in a better mood for Fight Club, I stuck it out to the end, but that didn’t change the result – i.e., I have no idea what the movie was about or trying to say.  It involves a young, middle-class loner, Norton, who takes up with anti-social, psycho Pitt and dissolute Bonham Carter.  Together they are nothing but destructive and self-destructive.  There are some references to excessive consumerism, but the point escapes me. What a waste of Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter.  Amazingly, Rotten Tomato critics give it an 81%, and because it has become a cult classic, the audience likes it even more at 95.  I give it zero stars.

Chinatown (1974) and its sequel Two Jakes (1994) involve a Los Angeles private detective (Jack Nicholson as J.J. Giddes) caught up in some shady land dealings while trying to document some extramarital affairs.  The first film is set just before WWII and the second immediately afterwards.  Chinatown co-starred Faye Dunaway and was directed by Roman Polanski in his last movie before fleeing America.  Although it was nominated for 11 Oscars, it won only a minor one.  The Rotten Tomato critics have scored it at 100 and the audience gives it a 92.  Two Jakes, which co-starred Harvey Keitel, was directed by Nicholson and was poorly received – 65% by the critics and 36% by the audience.  Both movies were written by Robert Towne, and he had planned to complete a trilogy set in 1968 with Nicholson at the end of his career dealing with his own divorce, but those plans have been permanently shelved.  Because I don’t enjoy neo-noir crime mysteries, I give Chinatown only two stars and Two Jakes only one out of four.

Husbands and Wives (1992) is a typical Woody Allen movie that examines a couple of marriages going through mid-life crises.  As with most Allen movies, it is set in Manhattan and contains fascinating characters.  It is Allen’s last movie with Mia Farrow before their break-up.   The Rotten Tomato critics love it (100%), and the audience likes it (84%).  My kind of movie – three and a half stars out of four.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), directed by John Ford, is the best movie ever made.  John Wayne stars as a strong, silent cowboy/rancher who watches as co-stars Jimmy Stewart, an earnest tinhorn/pilgrim lawyer, and Lee Marvin, a sadistic outlaw, battle over law & order in a small frontier town.  The last line of the movie has a railroad conductor generously providing Stewart with a special cuspidor and commenting, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valence.”  The irony of that statement makes it the best closing line ever (better than Casablanca and GWTW).  The Rotten Tomatoes critics scored it at only 97% because one of its 34 critics didn’t like it.  The audience scored it at only 89%.  If I could give it more than four stars, I would.       

P.S., I love you (2007) is a chick flick about a moody young woman (Hilary Swank) married to a great guy (Gerard Butler) who dies from a brain tumor.  Because she is scarred from being abandoned by her father many years earlier, she is unable to move on with her life.  Then some letters written by her husband before he died start arriving, and in these letters he attempts to get her back on track.  I love sentimental stories like this and was in tears for half the movie.  Unfortunately, the casting was terrible.  Butler is great, but Swank and her angry mother (Kathy Bates) don’t have a romantic bone in their bodies.  And Swank’s three best friends – Lisa Kudrow, Gina Gershon, and Harry Connick, Jr. are similarly unattractive.  The Netflix jacket says the movie is set in Dublin, Ireland, and that is true of the book upon which it is based, but the movie is actually set in Lower East Side of Manhattan.  The Rotten Tomato critics score it only 23%, but the audience gives it 82%.  The audience is mostly right – I give it three stars out of four.

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